A new large-scale study published in The Lancet reveals that autoimmune disorders now affect approximately one in ten individuals, making these conditions more common than previously thought.
The study also exposes significant socioeconomic, seasonal, and regional disparities among several autoimmune disorders, offering fresh insights into the potential causes of these diseases.
Understanding Autoimmune Disorders
Autoimmune diseases are conditions where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s healthy cells, instead of defending against infections.
More than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases exist, including rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis.
Some of these disorders, like type 1 diabetes, have seen an increase over the past few decades, leading researchers to question whether changes in environment or behavior could be causing a rise in the overall incidence of autoimmune disorders.
However, the exact causes of these diseases, and the degree to which genetics or environmental factors contribute, remain largely unknown.
The Challenge of Studying Autoimmune Disorders
Studying autoimmune diseases is challenging due to their rarity and the sheer variety of different types.
To overcome this, a consortium of experts from several universities, including KU Leuven, University College London, the University of Glasgow, and the University of Oxford, collaborated to analyze a comprehensive dataset of anonymized electronic health records from the U.K., encompassing 22 million individuals.
The Findings: Prevalence and Co-occurrence of Autoimmune Disorders
The researchers focused on 19 of the most common autoimmune diseases, examining trends over time, the demographics most affected, and the co-existence of different autoimmune diseases.
They discovered that these diseases collectively affect about 10% of the population – a higher figure than earlier estimates.
Women were more affected than men, with 13% of women and 7% of men diagnosed with at least one of the autoimmune diseases studied.
Moreover, the study revealed socioeconomic, seasonal, and regional differences among several autoimmune disorders.
The researchers suggest that these disparities are unlikely to be solely attributable to genetic differences, implicating potentially modifiable risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and stress in the development of these diseases.
Notably, the study confirmed that individuals with one autoimmune disease are more likely to develop another.
This phenomenon was particularly noticeable among rheumatic and endocrine diseases, indicating possible shared risk factors.
However, this pattern was not universal across all autoimmune diseases, suggesting distinct disease mechanisms for conditions like multiple sclerosis.
Comments from the Research Team
Dr. Nathalie Conrad, the first author of the paper, noted, “We observed that some autoimmune diseases tended to co-occur more commonly than would be expected by chance or increased surveillance alone.”
This suggests shared risk factors, such as genetic predispositions or environmental triggers, among these diseases.
Senior author Professor Geraldine Cambridge highlighted the substantial burden autoimmune diseases place on individuals and society.
She emphasized the need for increased research to understand these conditions’ underlying causes, which will support the development of targeted interventions to reduce the impact of environmental and social risk factors.
The study, titled “Incidence, prevalence, and co-occurrence of autoimmune disorders over time and by age, sex, and socioeconomic status: a population-based cohort study of 22 million individuals in the UK,” represents a significant step forward in our understanding of autoimmune diseases and their impact on public health.
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